Thursday, May 9, 2013

Theatre Machines: Helen Mirren and Alan Turing

The news in London theatre right now is the Queen's row with the drumming protestors. It seems that during a recent performance of The Audience, Peter Morgan's new play about Elizabeth II's weekly meetings with a succession of her Prime Ministers, Dame Helen Mirren, once again winning plaudits and awards for playing the monarch (she won her Oscar for The Queen, also written by Morgan, and has just taken home an Olivier Award for this West End performance), interrupted the proceedings to walk off stage and out the door in order to tell off a crowd whose drumming could be heard inside. No hard feelings on either side, and the incident has been preserved for posterity on film, as the protestors had invited along a documentary film crew. Indeed, given the recent announcement that the real Queen would be cutting back her foreign travel and ceding more responsibility for such duties to Charles, the whole event gives rise to an intriguing--and no doubt far more entertaining--alternative to said plan: send Dame Helen instead!

We haven't gone in for any of the big West End shows on this trip, opting instead for our one live performance outing so far to see an intimate musical about Alan Turing called The Universal Machine, currently on at the tiny New Diorama Theatre near Regent's Park. I confess that it first peaked my interest because I thought its writer and director, David Byrne, was that David Byrne, and that the former Talking Heads frontman was opening his second experimental musical in as many months on this side of the Atlantic following the rapturous reception his take on Imedlda Marcos, Here Lies Love, has received at the Public Theatre in New York. Turns out, however, the David Byrne who is the Artistic Director of the NDT is somebody completely different, although equally gifted, it would seem, when it comes to developing and staging a new work of musical theatre about a complicated biographical subject who only wanted to be loved.

The Universal Machine, with a score by Dominic Brennan, and starring the terrific Richard Delaney in the lead role, condenses the story of Turing's tortured genius into three main episodes: his time as a public schoolboy at Sherbourne, where his immersion in advanced theoretical physics and mathematics is matched only by his youthful infatuation with an older classmate, Chris; his work at Bletchley Park during the war, where, building upon his earlier prototype for the Universal Turing Machine (the forerunner of the modern computer), he was instrumental in developing electromechanical techniques for cracking coded messages sent by the Nazis on their Enigma Machine, thus saving millions of Allied lives in the Battle of the Atlantic; and his postwar conviction for gross indecency, which resulted in his chemical castration and eventual suicide from cyanide poisoning.

Byrne uses snappy narrative exposition and stylized movement sequences to telegraph in an effective and economic manner these major plot points, while at the same giving us a series of quiet--and quietly moving--scenes between the emotionally conflicted Alan (who longs to build a machine that can feel for him) and those with whom he has his closest, those still coded, relationships: Chris at school; the co-worker from Bletchley he almost marries; and, of course, his mother Sara (the brilliant Judith Paris), who counselled her son to deny he was gay, and who later refused to believe he committed suicide, saying as much in print as Turing's first biographer.

Stylistically, the songs also straddle this structure, sometimes (as with a traditional chorus) functioning as an extension of the narration, or else commenting on the action, and sometimes offering us more insight into the interior life of our characters, especially mother and son. And herein lies my one, somewhat serious, quibble with the piece as it currently stands. Sara, as played by Paris, is such a dominant presence whenever she's on stage, and the song she sings and later reprises to convince herself to believe her "white lies" about her son is so emotionally climactic, that she tends to thwart a full empathetic connection on the audience's part with her necessarily withholding son, despite Delaney's own heartbreaking solo about the stolen moments of intimacy he steals with the young men he meets on his yearly trips out of repressed Britain.

Given Sara Turing's role in constructing--and simultaneously obfuscating--the posthumous narrative
around her brilliant son, there may be some biographical justification for this choice. However, in theatrical terms, it does mean that our spectatorial loyalties remain divided, with Alan's interior emotional life as a gay man remaining at war with his public persona as a war hero.

Let's hope that a full pardon eventually remedies that. In the meantime, The Universal Machine remains a richly satisfying work on a number of levels. And, having seen it, it will make all the more enjoyable our trip to Bletchley Park tomorrow.


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